By Tatiana Garrett
I hesitated to write about my experience studying wild dolphin behavior in Australia because it was long ago and I recognize that the brief experience does not make me a behavior expert. I have so much respect for the professionals that dedicate their lives to studying animals, but the experience did change my life in many ways and those lessons are worth sharing.
I spent the summer of 1998 studying dolphins in Monkey Mia, Australia. The experience taught me how subjective observations can be and how difficult it can be to define actions and emotions in a universal way. I also examined the human drive to explore the world through touch and personal contact, and how that is quite often extremely harmful.
In my freshman year of college, I wrote a fellowship proposal to go to Australia and study wild dolphins with Brookfield Zoo’s Conservation Biology department. I had connections at the zoo because I had been working there full-time since I was sixteen (I completed a home-school college preparatory course for the last two years of high school while working). I was awarded the fellowship and had to spend time every week volunteering with a Behavioral Scientist at the zoo (while juggling my classes, a job, and a social life).
In the mornings, before the dolphin exhibit was open to the public, we would observe the dolphins and record their behavior. Our method involved using a stop watch that would go off at intervals (every 30 seconds or minute) and noting what the focal animal was doing at that exact moment. Months of this data can be compiled to give a composite of how animals spend their time. Comparisons can then be made between wild and captive populations to help optimize care for captive populations and to better understand species as a whole.
The experience made me realize how much people want to anthropomorphize animals. I am commonly asked about which species are the smartest and whether or not specific animals are happy or sad, and I’ve learned that there are no simple answers to these questions because rarely do two people define “smart” or “happy” the same way. When you have to systematically analyze behaviors, you can truly only categorize into realms like socializing, feeding, or resting. You can accurately say what percentage of time a dolphin calf spends with her mom and how long a wild dolphin spends foraging for food, but science (and life, in general) often gives us more questions and fewer absolute truths.
This lesson in how subjective most human observations are is valuable. Humans want to categorize and label people and animals. Just look at the recent plight of the Pit Bull—once revered as war heroes and great family dogs; now, breed bans and senseless euthanasia are occurring around the world because people want to label them “aggressive” or “dangerous.” In a world of relativity; breed-bias is senseless.
The reason why dolphin researchers flock from far corners of the world to study behavior in Monkey Mia is because back in the 1960s, a fisherman’s wife hand-fed dolphins from their boat. News traveled fast and others did the same. Problems arose when calves were being taught to beg from boats instead of learning how to forage for fish. Now, there are rangers at the beach to ensure only specific dolphins are fed and that it is a small portion of their diet to ensure they still need to forage.
The phenomenon of people wanting to feed and touch wild animals is actually widespread. Although it is illegal, people feed dolphins and manatees in U.S. waters, causing the animals to approach and be injured by boats. In urban environments, squirrels and birds are fed and end up learning to approach humans. This causes them to be struck by cars and killed when they get too close to children or fearful adults. Dolphin research taught me that the best way to show love for wild animals is to simply observe and appreciate them.
I haven’t seen the scientist that mentored me in many years, but I am so grateful for the experience I had and all the lessons that I still carry with me today. I was too young to process it at the time, but my summer with the dolphins was a truly life-changing experience.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails” on Watch312.com.